Seeing and Not Believing: The Photography of Allan Chasanoff

A book cover with the title in black text at top left. At bottom left is a collaged design resembling three jars standing on a table. At top right is a white square containing a character resembling kanji.

The first examination of the Postmodern photographs of Allan Chasanoff, whose experimental work challenges the notion of photography as a truthful record of the “real”

The Yale University Art Gallery is delighted to announce the publication of Seeing and Not Believing: The Photography of Allan Chasanoff, the first book to present and survey Allan Chasanoff’s (1936–2020, B.A. 1961) highly diverse and often cutting-edge Postmodern experiments in photography. With more than 200 images, many previously unpublished, the publication brings Chasanoff’s contribution to Postmodern photography to a wider audience and underscores how the artist’s work challenges our assumptions about believing what we see.

From the 1960s onward, Chasanoff maintained a daily photographic practice, producing tens of thousands of images that pushed the limits of the medium and questioned its reliability as a document of reality. Preferring to experiment away from the art world, Chasanoff rarely exhibited his photographs, his work remaining unknown to all but a select circle of friends and collaborators. To the few who knew his work during his lifetime—including Richard Benson, former dean of the Yale School of Art, and Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian at the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, who contributes the preface to the catalogue—he was an artistic genius working at the limits of the medium.

Chasanoff received his B.A. from Yale College in 1961. After graduation, he worked with his father and brother in commercial real estate development and became an avid and eclectic collector of art, amassing important holdings of 20th-century photography (the majority of which was gifted to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 1993 and exhibited and published in 1994, while other works went to the Yale University Art Gallery, where they were exhibited and published in First Doubt: Optical Confusion in Modern Photography); ceramics (a significant part of which was donated to and exhibited and published by the Mint Museum of Arts and Design, Charlotte, N.C.); book art (which was exhibited and published in an award-winning catalogue by the Yale University Art Gallery, Odd Volumes: Book Art from the Allan Chasanoff Collection); posters; Japanese seals; and more. He also pursued a daily practice of making photographs, first using analog equipment and later employing a sophisticated array of digital tools. Throughout his life, Chasanoff’s fascination with the photographic process and desire to challenge our instinctive belief in the photograph as “truth teller” never wavered. The intellectual curiosity, technical inventiveness, and sincere joy he brought to his explorations in the medium are brilliantly described in the catalogue by Mónika Sziládi, Chasanoff’s archivist from 2013 to 2020 and a practicing artist herself.

Sziládi’s selection of works across seven thematic sections in Seeing and Not Believing examines Chasanoff’s main avenues of inquiry, some technical (montages of layered images that took advantage of digital photography and editing tools), others formal (light and shadow), and even those that engaged with the philosophical ideas of photography or with his fascination with writing systems and the creation of fonts. An extensive essay by Sziládi presents an outline of Chasanoff’s life and practice, tracing the development of his art from his early experiments with light, shadow, and color in his lens-shot photographs to his late-career foray into 3D printing, which he viewed as the latest frontier of photography. Influenced by the ideas of Marshall McLuhan and Jacques Derrida, Chasanoff understood photographic images to be full of multivalent symbolism, and his art highlights the fluid nature of the medium. Using analog optical effects, such as blurring and other distortions, and on-screen tools to cut and layer digital images, Chasanoff created a wide range of pictures, some of which reference or appropriate the work of artists like Henri Matisse, Mark Rothko, or Giorgio Morandi.

The coholder of patents for both software and hardware, Chasanoff employed databases to organize his many photographs into a cross-referenced, multidirectional archive that is now held by the Yale University Art Gallery, along with a large selection of his printed images, and is viewable by appointment in the Allan Chasanoff Classroom at the Margaret and Angus Wurtele Study Center, at Yale West Campus.

About the Authors

Mónika Sziládi is an artist working in photography and digital photomontage. She was archivist for Allan Chasanoff from 2013 to 2020. Richard Ovenden is Bodley’s Librarian at the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.